“Are you saying that I need to get 20 less minutes of sleep so I can do 20 minutes of mindfulness?”
A staff member asked me this question last year when we were talking about self-care. What I heard behind this question was that the person did not have a sense of how to balance work, family, and the stress that comes with a busy life with many demands. It made me worry about the students in the teacher’s class who had a caring, thoughtful, and increasingly stressed out teacher. It made me think deeply about our school’s adult culture.
I wondered how could I help build resiliency and balance for the adults.
Sandra Bloom’s 2010 article “Organizational Stress as a Barrier to Trauma-Informed Service Delivery” delves into the deeply corrosive effects of organizational chronic stress on the students, adults, and school itself. A chronically stressed organization is characterized by “an erosion of trust”. This is the exact opposite climate of what all schools are trying to create for our students. We cannot have the deep and sometimes contentious conversations at staff meetings. Instead, we have superficial and ritualized conversations, which help no one – neither students nor staff.
There are more dire consequences for our students and staff if we don’t address chronic stress in our school. Communication breaks down. People leave the school. Institutional memory is lost and there is a sense of constant transition. There is “an atmosphere of recurrent or constant crisis which severely constrain the ability of the staff to: involve all levels of staff in decision making processes; constructively confront problems; [and] engage in complex problem-solving.” Staff respond to this by becoming less cognitively flexible and more authoritarian. Schools become rigid and lack expectations about behavior.
This organizational stress comes from many places: national and state testing, paperwork, and meetings. Most of all I think it comes from wanting to do the best for each and every student who comes through our doors. We are increasingly realizing the variety of non-standard needs of our students. To meet students where they are and help them excel, it takes a lot of emotional and intellectual energy and stamina.
Growing up, I don’t remember any explicit conversations – at home or at school – about having a balance in life. In fact, I think most of my role models (my mother excluded) didn’t have a great deal of balance much of the time. Rather, they would work hard into the early hours of the morning, forsake eating while on a big project, and trying to squeeze more into the same hours each day.
Balance and self-care are essential for all members of a school community to learn and actively cultivate. We can’t ask students to take care of themselves and balance their lives if we don’t model this for them in our lives. We need to show and talk with them about how there are times of stress in life that we cannot control. We can take responsibility for how we react to stress, in our lives and in our behavior.
Last year, in the heart of mud season, we read the article “Five Ways to Reignite Your Passion for Teaching” during a staff meeting. Then, we used a protocol to discuss in small groups what each person’s take away was. I chose the article because of the time of year – a time of grey and brown, a time of transition, and a time just before the first signs and smells of spring arrive. The article was meant to help us consider how we, as an adult community, maintain our balance through self-care; to help us reflect on how we find balance; and to learn together. The conversation that emerged was one of the best that we had as a staff last year.
Based on the work we did last year and the questions staff asked, we collaboratively created some expectations and systems at school this year to bend towards more balance, connection, and self-care for all adults. It has meant that we have scheduled in time to reflect, reset, and connect before we begin any other work at staff meetings. It means that we have slowed down the work we are doing – so rather than learning and doing more and more, we are trying to be collaborative and learn more slowly and deeply. We encourage each other to ask for help; to pause, breathe, and smile; and to laugh more.
I find myself pulling back from plowing through the full agenda if people need more time to work through a topic or area of learning. I find myself choosing not to do everything.
We will keep working together to build relational trust and learn ways to take care of ourselves and each other.
We will keep reflecting together.
And, together, we will help each other find balance.
Bloom, S. L. (2010). Organizational Stress as a Barrier to Trauma‐Informed Service Delivery. Becker, M. and Levin, B. A Public Health Perspective of Women’s Mental Health, New York: Springer (pp.295‐311). Retrieved on 11/30/2018 from: https://rhyclearinghouse.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/docs/21360-Organizational_Stress_as_a_Barrier_to_Trauma-Informed.pdf
Eva, Amy L. (2018 February 20). Five Ways to Ignite Your Passion for Teaching. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved on 11/30/2018 from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_to_reignite_your_passion_for_teaching?utm_source=Greater+Good+Science+Center&utm_campaign=f8f3877ab9-GGSC_Ed_Newsletter_Feb_2018&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5ae73e326e-f8f3877ab9-51235191
Jen Kravitz is a 2012 Rowland Fellow. She is the principal at Cornwall School. When not at school, she can be found walking her dogs, reading with her girls, skiing, running, meditating, and enjoying a good cup of tea. She is currently reading Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich and re-reading (for the 100th time) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.